Sunday, September 30, 2012


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Zip! Pow! Ah-a-a... -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in January 2009.)

A cat loves a mouse named Ignatz. The mouse's sole goal in life is to bean the cat with a brick, a villainy welcomed by the cat as a sign of affection, and perhaps it is. A badge-bearing canine, Offissa Pupp, adores the cat and wants the mouse safely behind bars. All of this in a surreal desert place called Coconino County.

Ah, love. The eternal triangle. Or quadrangle -- if you include the brick. A web so tangled that even the projectile-hurling rodent unwittingly worships at his target's shrine. "Loves me, loves me not. . . No, yetz, no, yetz?" the cat interrogates a daisy. Petals fall as bricks fly.

I'm talking, of course, about Krazy Kat, George Herriman's artful comic that appeared in American newspapers from 1913 to 1944. No other strip has been so widely admired, or evoked so many scholarly appreciations. It has been the subject of a novel, a ballet, and even a dramatization at the Boston Center for the Arts.

The poet e. e. cummings saw Krazy Kat as a commentary on American democracy: a struggle between society (Offissa Pupp) and the individual (Ignatz Mouse) over an ideal of benevolence (Krazy). Culture critic M. Thomas Inge wrote: "To the world of comic art, George Herriman was its Picasso in visual style and innovation, its Joyce in stretching the limitations of language, and its Beckett in staging the absurdities of life."

I recall an article by postmodern lit-crit scholar Elisabeth Crocker called " 'To He, I Am For Evva True': Krazy Kat's Indeterminate Gender."

Poor Krazy, forced to bear such ponderous brickbats of criticism. That sweet she/he whose innocent life is reduced to "Ignatz!" Zip! Pow! "Ah-h-h. . ."

The feline-obsessed critics and scholars have missed the most most important point of all: Krazy Kat as precursor of modern physics. I'll not mince words. George Herriman was the Heisenberg of the funnies, the Einstein of Coconino County. He was master of the quantum, the wizard of relativity. His cat, cop and brick-tossing mouse turned the deterministic world of Newtonian physics upside down.

Krazy was the original Schrodinger's cat. It cannot be a coincidence that the first of Ignatz's bricks were hurled in 1911. That was the year of the first Solvay Congress in Belgium that brought together the architects of the new physics -- Planck, DeBroglie, Einstein, and the rest. Already Planck had punctured classical continuity with his notion of quantum jumps, and Einstein had said that space and time were relative to the observer. While the big guns of science were hashing this out in Brussels, Herriman was constructing a comic world on the same principles.

Consider, the problem of Krazy's gender. Just as light can be sometimes a particle and sometimes a wave in the new physics, so Krazy is sometimes a he-cat and sometimes a she-cat. It depends on who's doing the observing.

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle asserts the impossibility of pinning one thing down without another thing going out of focus. And that's exactly what happens when you read a Krazy Kat strip. Try to pin down Ignatz's villainy, and his affection for Krazy goes out of focus. Conversely, fix his affection, and his villainy becomes uncertain.

The same for Offissa Pupp. Is he a hero or a kill-joy? The two aspects of Pupp's character are as inextricably and uncertainly linked as the position and momentum of an electron.

Furdermore. . .

The plants and rocks of Coconino County transform themselves from frame to frame in quantum jumps.

The sky of Coconino County changes from day to night or night to day depending on who's doing the looking. Space and time stretch and compress with Einsteinian elasticity.

At the heart of the new physics was the idea that the act of observing affects what we see; that is to say, there is no knowable reality independent of the knower. Does the hurled brick exist unless observed by Offissa Pupp? As Krazy Kat might say, the klub-toting kopp's act of percepshun frizzes fluxacious reality into an i-dee fix-ee.

And so furth.

By the time of the sixth Solvay Congress in 1930 -- the last that Einstein attended -- relativity and quantum physics had triumphed. But Niels Bohr and Einstein continued to debate what it all meant: Is reality dependent upon our participation? Do the laws of nature yield probabilities only? Etc. Etc. Meanwhile, George Herriman had long since answered all these questions in the affirmative.

Coconino County is the ultimate metaphor for the discontinuous, everything's-relative landscape of 20th century physics -- and 20th century life. Krazy Kat is the perfect citizen of such a world, and if we have any sense we'll try to make ourselves more like her/him. We should take love where we can find it. Look for the best in the bricks to the bean. Be prepared for the improbable.

Zip! Pow! Ah-h-h. . .

Friday, September 28, 2012

Nuclear landscapes

I was thinking recently about August 7, 1945. I was almost nine years old, growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The previous day an atomic bomb had exploded over the heart of Hiroshima.

As I recall, all of us, adults and children, struggled to understand this extraordinary event, so remote from common knowledge and experience. It was clear that humanity had crossed a threshold, but to what? Within eight days, the war would be over.

One mystery was solved: We now knew what was going on up Highway 11 in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, previously a source of wild speculation.

Anyway, as I dredged my memory for the child's awareness of the birth of the Atomic Age, one black-and-white image stood out: the obliterated city of Hiroshima. I brought up a Google Earth image of the city today. You can see a snapshot below. To the left, Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park. Surrounding it, a modern, bustling city, essentially indistinguishable from any modern city anywhere. At the top center, across the street from the park, what appears to be a baseball stadium!

The T-bridge at top left was the target for the Enola Gay. (Click to enlarge.)
I don't mean to make light of the terrible tragedy that befell the people of Hiroshima, or the lingering human scars both physical and psychological. But the environment seems to have healed, at least by the evidence of Google Earth.

What about the country that initiated the Atomic Age? I used Google Earth to bring up an image of the Hanford Reservation in Washington state, where the plutonium was produced for the Trinity test in New Mexico and the Nagasaki bomb -- and thousands of subsequent weapons. That's the reservation to the left of the river in the image below, a wasteland. Granted, this part of the state, in the rain shadow of the Cascades, is naturally desert. The area to the right of the river is irrigated orchard and farmland. The Hanford Reservation is still too poisoned by radioactive waste to allow human habitation or cultivation.
The nuclear testing range in southern Nevada and the Bikini and Eniwetok Atolls likewise remain bleak and scarred with radioactivity, and in the case of Bikini, uninhabitable.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Holy ignorance

At a press conference in 2002, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously explained foreign policy: “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know."

The same can be said of science.

The textbooks are full of known knowns. We are quite confident affirming the circulation of the blood, the distance to the Sun, the common descent of animals and plants. I sit here in the college library within a few steps of shelf after shelf of known knowns, the accumulated body of reliable knowledge -- the Qs, in our Library of Congress classification system -- upon which is based modern "civilization" -- the Rs, Ss, Ts, Us and Vs, medicine, agriculture, technology, and military and naval science.

To be sure, it is a characteristic of science that the known knowns are not etched in stone. Even the most confidently affirmed paradigms are written in pencil, ready to be erased or edited if necessity requires. That doesn't happen often. By and large, the known knowns accumulate at an ever-increasing rate. It is impossible for even the most accomplished scientist to keep up, except, perhaps, within a narrow specialty.

Then there are known unknowns. The nature of dark energy, for example. The mechanisms of memory and consciousness. The origin of life on Earth. Questions like these attract the curiosity of the most talented researchers. Faced with such questions, we say "I don't know yet, but I'd like to find out."

I have often used here the metaphor of knowledge as an island in a sea of mystery. The island is the known knowns. The shoreline is where we encounter the known unknowns. And then there is whatever is over the far horizon -- the unknown unknowns.

The known knowns are -- or should be -- a source of pride for our species. The known unknowns spark our curiosity. The unknown unknowns keep us undogmatic.

Or should keep us undogmatic. On the floor below me here in the college library are shelf after shelf of books -- the Bs, theology and religion -- that drag the unknown unknowns kicking and screaming into what is purported to be the known knowns. Much of sectarian violence was and is caused by dressing up unknowns unknowns as known knowns.

Are there unknown unknowns that are unknowable? Who knows? My guess is yes. We are finite creatures living (even as a species) for a finite time in a universe that may be infinite and eternal. Which should be reason enough to live lives of quiet, tolerant, agnostic reverence.

(These thoughts were inspired by a review in Nature by Michael Shermer of a book by Stuart Firestein.)

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Naked eye

Can you see a galaxy with the naked-eye?

Well, of course, you can see our own galaxy, the Milky Way. We are inside it, and see it as a band of milky light sweeping across the sky in a grand 360, breathtaking on a clear, dark summer night. Still, I used to be surprised when teaching a general studies astronomy course how few students had any memory of seeing the Milky Way -- an indication, I suppose, of just how dramatically we have polluted the night sky with artificial light.

Then there are the Milky Way's two satellite galaxies, The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, prominent in dark skies of the southern hemisphere. I've seen them but once, under the best possible conditions, in the unpolluted skies of central Australia. To the naked eye they look like stationary clouds of hazy light.

The closest spiral galaxy to our own is the Andromeda Galaxy, 2.6 million light-years away, which takes its name from its constellation. It fills a part of the sky that you could cover with a finger held at arm's length (six times wider than the full Moon), but with the naked eye you can only see the bright core of the galaxy as a fuzzy blur on a dark summer night under clear skies. It's an easy object if you know where to look.

Not much further away (2.9 million light-years) is the Triangulum Galaxy, reportedly easy to see under ideal conditions, although I have never been successful. A few other nearby galaxies have reportedly been observed with unaided vision, but not by me. I've seen the object Omega Centauri often enough, but always considered it a globular cluster, and part of our own Milky Way, but I believe a few years ago it was reclassifed as a dwarf galaxy.

So that's it. Of the billions of galaxies visible to telescopes, only Andromeda gives us a naked-eye glimpse of the greater universe away from our own galaxy and its immediate neighborhood.

The Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way are destined to merge.

We are separated by more than 2 million light-years, but gravity is pulling us together. The most recent work suggests that the collision will not be head-on. In about 4 billion years, the two galaxies will sweep past one another at 600 kilometers per second, caught in a gravitational pas de deux, like the two galaxies in the Hubble photograph above, NGS2207 and IC 2163 (click to enlarge). They will twirl around, ripping their neat spiral arms asunder, and gradually merge into a giant elliptical galaxy.

Which is about at the same time the Sun will have used up it nuclear fuel and expired.

It will be a stunning sight, that approaching spiral filling the night sky -- if there is anyone around to watch. Unlikely to be our descendents, but surely among the hundreds of billions of stars among those two fine galaxies, some sort of sentient life will have appeared on the scene to witness what must surely be one of the grandest naked-eye spectaculars in the universe.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


(What follows is part of a review I wrote in 1990.)

I've seen the British Crown Jewels on display at the Tower of London. I once visited an exhibit of gem-encrusted Easter eggs created for the Russian Czars by Peter Carl Faberge, the finest jeweler of Europe. I've browsed wide-eyed among the treasures at Tiffanys.

All of these artful baubles pale before the natural beauty of beetles.

Beetlemania! That's the name of a new exhibit of beetles offered by Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. Thousands of specimens from the Museum's vast beetle collection (three-and-a-half million specimens representing 100,000 species collected worldwide) are attractively displayed and interpreted.

And they are gorgeous. Gemstone gorgeous. Gaudy, iridescent jewel-bugs, shimmering in colors of turquoise, sapphire, opal, and ruby.

One group of thumb-sized scarab beetles appears to have been fashioned from precious metals: gold, silver, and platinum. The backs of certain leaf beetles seem to be studded with hundreds of tiny diamonds. Every group of beetles on display offers something in the way of bijou beauty. Pearls, rhinestones, and Indian beads. Polished ebony and ivory. Mother-of-pearl brooches, lapis lazuli stick-pins, and emerald pendants big enough and rich enough to dangle grandly in Liz Taylor's decolletage.

What makes the Coleoptera (beetles) so endlessly fascinating is their apparently superfluous ornamentation. They are far more flamboyantly decorated than any theory of evolution would seem to require. What possible advantage in the struggle for survival is bestowed on the Calodema beetle by its astonishing box-of-Crayolas coloration? What is the reason for the fabulous polka dots and splotches on the backs of ladybugs? Why do leaf beetles sport such a goofy profusion of spikes, fuzz, frills, pits, and knobs, all in decorator colors?

Those folks who prefer to explain the world as the piecework of a divine craftsman could offer no better proof of their faith than beetles. It is difficult to imagine any combination of natural laws creating the beetles on display at Harvard. Beetles are pure whimsy. Beetles are art for art's sake. Beetles are the work of the Seventh Day, when the Creator was just foolin' around havin' fun.

Of course, biologists are unwilling to concede that even the most wildly ornamented beetles don't somehow fit into the evolutionary scheme. Classic examples of Darwinian adaptation are plentiful in the Harvard exhibit, including beetles from Arizona that have evolved colors to match the rocks they live on -- red for red sandstone, black for black volcanic rock -- the better to escape predators.

But what of those thumb-sized scarabs with backs of sterling silver or 24-carat gold? Biologists suggest that in tropical rain forests these shiny metallic colors act as mirrors, reflecting the vegetation of the forest, thereby functioning as a kind of all-purpose camouflage. Smaller metallic beetles, they say, are shiny to mimic drops of water on a wet surface. These Darwinian explanations are reasonable enough, but to my inexpert mind the spectacular variability of beetles suggests that nature is infected by beetlemania -- a sheer lunatic exuberance for diversity, a manic propensity to try any damn thing that looks good or works

Everything, in fact, but the kitchen sink! Click beetles, stink bugs, fireflies, burying beetles, banjo beetles, stag beetles, whirligigs, and tumble bugs. They are all here, in their mind-boggling profusion, glittering like gems.

Beetles as tiny as the point of a pin: They don't even need to beat their wings to fly; they simply spread their feathery wings and float away like motes of dust in the air.

Beetles as big as baseballs: The Goliath Beetle of tropical Africa, when airborne, can shatter the windshield of a Jeep.

Beetles that eat dirt: Pill beetles found in the Israeli desert gobble up so much soil they recycle the entire desert every fifteen years. Beetles that scuba dive: Whirligig beetles trap a bubble of air under their belly and use it as an aqualung to stay under water for an extended period of time. Beetles that roll little balls of dung: Ancient Egyptians worshiped the dung-rolling scarab beetle, imagining it to be a suitable image of the god that rolls the sun across the sky each day.

And what we see is only a tiny fraction of what lies hidden in dark drawers in the nether regions of the museum -- a Fort Knox full of coleopteran riches. Beetles are the most diverse creatures on Earth. There are probably between 5 and 50 million species of living organisms and beetles account for a quarter of them. When asked what he had learned about the Creator by studying the creation, the renowned evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane is said to have replied, "He must have an inordinate fondness for beetles."

If beetles are indeed the work -- or play -- of the Seventh Day, then the Creator was busy from dawn to dusk.

Monday, September 24, 2012

An inordinate fondness

You have met my daughter Maureen on this blog, the paleoclimatologist. My other daughter Margaret is a children's book editor at Houghton Mifflin. She has done her bit for science too, by publishing the wonderful picture books by Steve Jenkins.

Jenkins is an artist with a profound respect for science, and a conviction that real empirical knowledge of the natural world can excite and fulfill a child's sense of wonder. His illustrations are paper collages. You can see how the books are made by following the "Making Books" link on his website, While you are there, read his superb statement about "Science." Ah, if only every child had a teacher like Jenkins.

What inspires this notice now is Jenkins' latest book, The Beetle Book, to my mind his best and most beautiful yet. I read it cover to cover with delight, not only for the endlessly-interesting world of beetles, but also for the ingenuity and beauty of presentation.

"Jewel beetles, tortoise beetles, giraffe beetles, forest fire beetles, flower beetles. Beetles that stink, beetles that bite, beetles that sprint, beetles that walk on water. Beetles that squeak and beetles that glow." (I quote from the flap.)

Variations, anatomy, senses, mating, life cycle, diets, communication, chemical warfare, disguise, movement, size. Beetles as small as the period at the end of this sentence, and beetles as large as your hand. Beetles as familiar as a firefly or ladybug, and beetles that will astound.

This is a book that treats a child's intellect with respect, that doesn't condescend. It will appeal to and enlighten the adult who reads it with a child as much as it will expand the horizons of a child's world.

Back in 1990, Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology mounted an exhibit called Beetlemania!, thousands of specimens from the museum's vast collection of 3.5 million beetles, representing 100,000 species. Jenkins would have been delighted. As I was. I wrote about the exhibit for the Boston Globe. I'll share some of what I had to say tomorrow.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


Click, and then again, to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

What is a philosopher -– a Saturday reprise

(These two posts, combined here into one, appeared in May 2010.)

Simon Critchley, a philosopher at the New School for Social Research in New York, opens a new series of philosophical essays on the New York Times website with "What Is A Philosopher?"

I read it eagerly, because, quite frankly, I've always wondered what is a philosopher, notwithstanding the fact that I've spent half-a-century reading philosophy and have philosopher friends -- that is, people who hold academic professorships in philosophy departments.

The problem is this: A definition of a profession usually makes reference to what one does for a living, and I've never been able to figure out exactly what a philosopher does.

To his credit, Critchley begins by saying, "I certainly don’t want to add more hot air to the volcanic cloud of unknowing."

And then he does.

A philosopher, he says, is someone with time on his hands. And: "Because of their laughable otherworldliness and lack of respect for social convention, rank and privilege, philosophers refuse to honor the old gods and this makes them politically suspicious, even dangerous"

And that's about all I can dig out of the essay.

Which more or less makes me a philosopher. I have time on my hands and a modicum of irreverence. I don't think of myself as dangerous.

So what do philosophers do? They make footnotes to Plato. Or footnotes to footnotes to Plato. Or footnotes to footnotes to footnotes to Plato. Which doesn't exactly advance civilization or increase the gross national product.

There was a time when philosophers thought about how the world works, but that activity has been subsumed by science. Epistemology is a useful occupation, but I'm not sure much has been added since Ockham, Bacon and Hume. Ethics? After you've stated the Golden Rule, what's left to do?

Here at the college, in retirement, I keep my laptop locked up in the Critical Theory Library of the Literature Department. The shelves groan with the likes of Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Rorty and all the rest of the recent gang of philosophers. Talk about "a volcanic cloud of unknowing"! These books suck the air right out of the room.

OK, OK, I'm being deliberately provocative. I'm going to send this post to a philosopher friend with whom I've had many lively discussions. If he wants to tell us what philosophers do, in 400 words or less, I'll post it here.

(Cartoon by Charles Barsotti, New Yorker.)
My friend and colleague Professor Capobianco has responded to my question, "What do philosophers do?" -- and with a conciseness untypical of his profession does it in less than 400 words. Thanks, Richard.

My good friend Chet has challenged me (at least I think it was me!) to help us understand what a philosopher is. As he points out, in earlier centuries that might have been an easier task because philosophers, as "lovers of wisdom," were often precisely those who advanced our understanding of the natural world and of every other aspect of what we call "reality." Admittedly, thinking about what a philosopher is or does in the contemporary world is more difficult because the study of what used to belong to the domain of philosophical thinking has split off over time and has been taken up by specialists in the other disciplines, what we call today the natural and social sciences. So, Chet asks, what's left for philosophers to think about? Why do we need philosophers at all anymore?

The answer, I think, has to do with the peculiar nature of philosophical thinking from its origins. Philosophy, in the proper sense of that term, is concerned with examining, clarifying, and questioning the fundamental assumptions of all our human activities and inquiries. Philosophers ask: what are the fundamental assumptions of our social and political lives? our institutions? our religions? our ethical stances? our art? our various modes of inquiry? With respect to that last item, we might observe that the working physicist, to use one example, proceeds with a method and a vocabulary but does not spend time examining that method and vocabulary; that is what a philosopher does best.

It's the philosophers, and, yes, even those much maligned postmodern philosophers, who remind the practitioners of the other disciplines that in the deep background of their research are basic assumptions about who we are and what the world is that are not fixed and eternal, but contingent and subject to modification or even radical revision. If history is our guide, then the very assumptions that Chet the physicist proceeds with today are likely to be viewed sometime in the future as no less quaint as Aristotle's assumptions appear to us today! So, to put it simply, good philosophy keeps our unknowing in view, and therefore keeps us thinking, keeps us questioning, keeps us wondering. Good philosophy keeps us unsettled in our knowing -- and, remarkably enough, it's precisely in this way that philosophy serves to "advance civilization."
(Cartoon by Charles Barsotti, New Yorker. Capobianco's new book is Engaging Heidegger, University of Toronto Press.)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Microcosmos -- part 2

Back in June, the journal Science devoted a special section tp the human gut microbiota, the microorganisms that inhabit our innards, whose cell count outnumbers our own. Recent research has revealed how important these inhabitants are for "our evolution, development, metabolism, immune defense, and susceptibility to a multiplicity of infections and noncommunicable diseases."

Also in June, a consortium of 200 investigators described in detail the microscopic community that resides on our elbows, and more than a dozen other parts of the body. They are part of the massive Human Microbiome Project. By the time the project is completed next year, they will have spent $170 million cataloging the microorganism that live on 18 body sites, and their genes.

To date, the Human Microbiome Project has generated 3.5 terabases of data, more than 1000 times the amount produced by the original Human Genome Project.

The bugs are everywhere -- on our elbows, in our noses, behind our ears, on our genitals -- thousands of species of bacteria, each community adapted to local conditions. My body consists of tens of trillions of cells. It is host to even more tens of trillions of living creatures that are not me, but with whom I live in an inseparable symbiosis.

Cataloging the invisible creatures that inhabit the human body -- its surface and innermost caverns -- is roughly equivalent to cataloging the visible plants and animals that inhabit the planet Earth. Apparently we arrive pristine. But no sooner do we poke our noses into the world than bacteria, fungi and viruses start colonizing our nooks and crannies, like the colonization of a new island arisen from the sea. Wave after wave of pioneers enter our bodies by every access, take up residence in eyelash and groin. By and large, they are mostly welcome, even useful. By and large.

Still, knowing they are there can be unsettling, prompting a gargle with Listerine and a long hot shower. $170 million to to tell us what some of us, perhaps, would rather not know. Just writing about them makes me itch.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


A lot in the science press lately about the human microbiome, the vast population of microorganisms that inhabit the human body. Researchers are learning more and more about what lives inside us and on us and how it affects our well-being. By some estimates, there's a kilogram of bacteria in my gut. That's a lot of bugs. They depend on me and I depend on them.

I thought I might take note of this -- and I will tomorrow -- but I got sidetracked by a poem by the Nobel-prizewinning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, called "Microcosmos," translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak.

It's those invisibly small bacteria she is writing about, those teeming zillions. They are inside us and out. They are ubiquitous: "To say they're many isn’t saying much./ The stronger the microscope/ the more exactly, avidly they're multiplied."
They don't even have decent innards.
They don't know gender, childhood, age.
They may not even know they are -- or aren't.
Still they decide our life and death.
I read about bacteria every week in the science journals. I know with a cool, rational knowledge how big they are and how many will fit on the head of a pin. I know how they double themselves every twenty minutes or so, and how they die in their incomprehensible numbers. But it takes a poet to make their presence real:
A windblown speck of dust is a meteor
From deepest space,
A finger print is a far-flung labyrinth,
Where they may gather
For their mute parades,
Their blind iliads and upanishads.
Mute and blind, they nevertheless live heroic lives on their own microscale, pose their own philosophical conundrums. They are ancestral to every living thing on Earth, the living matrix in which we swim, and worthy of their own Homer, their own Gaudapada, their own Wislawa Szymborska.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


I couldn't resist the title on the new books shelf at the library: Every Molecule Tells a Story, by Simon Cotton, a British chemist. Off I went to my comfy chair for an hour or two dipping into Cotton's text.

Lots of fun information, but the going was tough. Unfortunately for Cotton, it was inevitable that I would compare his book to Peter Atkin's classic Molecules, first published by W. H. Freeman in 1987, and reissued as a much improved second edition in 2003 by Cambridge University Press.

So off I went looking for Atkins, and spent another two or three even more delightful hours. Atkins is a gifted science writer and his books are invariably a pleasure to read.

And look, here on the back of the Second Edition, a blurb from the "Boston Globe": "We need to be reminded that matter, ordinary matter, is mysterious and magical. The smell of fresh raspberries, the flaming hillsides of New England in October, the pleasurable rush of sexual desire. Molecules. Just molecules. Physicist and biologists take note: in Atkins' delightful book, the Cinderella of chemistry begins to look a lot like a beautiful princess."

Hmm, I'm thinking. That sounds familiar. A quick Google delivers the author of the quote.

Yep, I wrote about the first edition of Atkins'Molecules in the fall of 1987, and used it as an excuse to rescue chemistry from the cinder hearth of science, much to the delight, as I recall, of dozens of chemistry teachers in the New England area who made copies of my essay for their students. The notion of chemistry being the "Cinderella of the sciences" took on a life of its own.

The 203 molecules of Atkins' Second Edition consist of less than a dozen kinds of atoms. Glad-handing hydrogen. Gregarious carbon. Narcissistic nitrogen. Promiscuous oxygen. And a few exotic hanger-ons, such as fluorine, phosphorus, sulfur, and chlorine. Atoms so small that a million million might comfortably sit on the period at the end of this sentence. No child's Tinker Toy construction set could be simpler. No child's construction set is so rich with possibilities.

Molecules that burn, and molecules that extinguish fire. Molecules that cause pain, and molecules that are pain killers. The yellow of carrots and the pink of flamingos. Cellulose and TNT. Cannabis and mustard gas. Touch, sight, taste, smell. The mysteries of sex. Pleasures and poisons. As Atkins says: "The world and everything in it is built from the almost negligible."

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

That strange flower, the sun…

I'm sure I'm not the only one among us who was dazzled by yesterday's APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day): a huge filament of flame blazing outward from the surface of the Sun, a stunning image I kept going back to all day.

I've copied the image above (click to enlarge), and I've added a black dot representing the size of the Earth on the same scale. Yes, our planet is dwarfed, reduced to a dot, by the explosive violence of our star.

This is the one of the two times of the year when my walk to the college at 7 AM -- mostly a west-east trek -- takes me directly into the rising Sun, a gorgeous sphere of molten gold bubbling up ahead where the woody path devolves into the meadows. Of course, flares and filaments and sunspots are not visible to the eye. If I hold out my arm, the tip of my little finger covers the Sun, and none but the most adventurous mind might guess how tiny is our mighty Earth compared to that aureate globe.

Adventurous minds did guess, beginning with Aristarchus. But still, as I walk toward the Sun each morning, I have to remind myself that my every breath is powered by that fire, my every step energized. Every leaf and blade of grass alongside the path leans and reaches for its share. That tiny black dot, and every living thing on it, removed from the Sun's surface by 93 million miles, basks in its glow.

Which is why I added the dot. For you and for me. As a humbling acknowledgement that each step eastward toward the sunrise whittles away an insignificant sliver of that rain of life-giving photons blowing from the surface of our parent star.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Remembering the Voyagers

In Shakespeare's The Tempest, Miranda grows to the age of sixteen on an ocean isle with no human companions other than her father Prospero and the monster Caliban. When storm and shipwreck bring others to the island she is suddenly awakened to the variety and beauty of mankind. "O brave new world," she exclaims, dazzled, "that has such people in't!"

We have been hearing lately about the almost forgotten spacecrafts Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, launched 35 years ago to explore the outer solar system. They have long since completed their planetary mission -- although still in occasional contact with Earth -- and are now drifting ever deeper into space. The current question concerns whether they can be said to have exited the Solar System.

In 1986, after a voyage of 8 ½ years, Voyager 2 sailed past Miranda, one of the moons of Uranus, a little world about the size of Colorado. The image beamed back to Earth was of stunning clarity. It showed features no larger than the Boston Common. Miranda's icy surface was pocked with craters and lidded with mysterious looping folds o f crinkled crust. From the deeps of space and the abysm of time Miranda seemed to wink. And we, seeing the image, could only blink with wonder at a universe that has such objects in it.

The Voyagers outperformed the most optimistic expectations of the engineers and scientists who launched them in 1977. The images beamed back to Earth were breathtaking, wonders of the space age. First came an encounter with giant Jupiter, the monster planet, eddied with storms of yellow, red, and orange like a can of freshly pigmented paint stirred with a stick. And against that improbable backdrop of psychedelic drapery, the moons. Sulphurus Io, plumed with volcanic activity, bubbling with a nether-worldly fire. Reticulated Europa, crevassed like arctic sea ice, cobwebbed with thin ridges and strangely devoid of craters. Ganymede, the frosted giant, its surface trenched and blasted like the battlefield at Verdun. And, Callisto, ice crusted, densely cratered; a huge many-circled impact feature on Callisto gives that moon the appearance of a struck brass gong.

We gaped. We marveled.

Then on to ringed Saturn, which the Voyagers reached in 1980 and 1981. No saint painted by Giotto ever wore a more splendid halo than huge Saturn.

Each of Saturn's moons held its own surprise. Mimas, with its perfect dimpled moon-sized crater; Mimas looks so much like Darth Vader's Death Star spaceship that one would be willing to credit George Lucas with a kind of spooky prescience. Bright-dark Iapetus, its leading hemisphere only one-tenth as bright as the icy trailing backside. Enigmatic Enceladus, almost a twin to bigger Ganymede. Tumbling, chunky Hyperion. Tethys, Rhea, and Dione, like wheels of green (and pink, and yellow) cheese. And Titan, the only one of all these worlds large enough to be shrouded in gas.


And on went Voyager 2, to Uranus and Neptune, and yet more wonders. But enough! Enough gush. Those were thrilling days. We have become almost blasé about planetary exploration. The Voyagers, those plucky little marvels, were revelations.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Don't Look Back

Click, and then again, to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sacred heart -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in December 2009.)

Let me share a page or so of my friend Brian Doyle's marvelous little book The Wet Engine (2005), which is both an account of the heart surgery that saved the life of his infant son, born with a three-chambered heart, and a song of praise for the heart itself and the wizard physicians who mend them.
Consider the astounding journey your blood embarks upon as it enters the pumping station of your heart. It is a healthy heart, a heart that works as it has been designed to work over many millions of years by its creative and curious and tireless and nameless holy wild silent engineer, blood that has been plucked and shucked of its oxygen by the body straggles back into the right atrium, the capacious gleaming lobby of the heart.

The tired blood, dusty veteran of an immense and exhausting journey, shuffles forward to and through a small circular door in the wall, a door with three symmetrical flaps: the tricuspid valve.

This circular door opens into another big room, the right ventricle; but at the very instant the right ventricle is filled to capacity with tired blood the entire ventricle contracts! slamming in on itself, and our tired heroes are sent flying through the pulmonary valve and thence into the pulmonary artery, which immediately branches, carrying the blood to the right and left lungs, and there, in the joyous airy countries of the blood vessels of the lungs, your blood is given fresh clean joyous oxygen! gobs and slathers of it! o sweet and delicious air! as much as those heroic blood cells can hoist aboard their tiny cellular ships, and now they resume their endless journey, heading into the marshlands and swamps of the lungs, the capillary beds, which open into the small streams and creeks called venules, which are tributaries of the pulmonary veins. There are four of these magic pulmonary rivers carrying your necessary elixir back to the looming holy castle of the heart, which they will enter this time through the left atrium, whose job is to disperse and assign the blood to the rest of the body, to send it on its quest and voyage and journey to the vast and mysterious wilderness that is You, and to tell that tale of the journeys of your blood cells through the universe of you, would take a billion books, each alike, each utterly different.
Brian's exuberant prose (which always rubs off on me) matches the exuberance with which he embraces life, life that he doesn't hesitate to call holy, and joyous, and mysterious, and wild. I always love to read his stuff, which seems to pop up everywhere in print, at least in the print I have the habit of visiting, because he has a way of reminding me just how holy and joyous and mysterious is the utterly commonplace, such as that utterly commonplace organ pumping away in my chest, so far infallibly, maybe two or three billion heaves so far, may it keep heaving for another few hundred million beats. Thanks, Brian, for reminding me that it's all gape-jawed marvelous, and that knowing more and more about how it works in no way diminishes the gape-jawed marvel but brings a prayer to the lips, not a petition to Mr. Big, not a cry for attention ("Me, Lord, me."), but a simple spontaneous undirected litany of praise and thanksgiving that gets longer and longer the more we learn, may it never end.

Friday, September 14, 2012

A penny for your thoughts

There was a time, for over half a century, when Ireland was home to the largest telescope in the world. After an Irish summer that gave us only rare glimpses of the heavens, one has to wonder how often the Earl of Rosse managed to see the stars.

Well, no matter. I returned to New England and cloudless skies just in time to catch the spectacular conjunction of Venus and the Moon in the pre-dawn dark, with Jupiter presiding from on high. And I was jet-lagged enough to be awake for the show.

Meanwhile, Tom put me onto this image from Curiosity on Mars, a view of the calibration target for Curiosity's camera. What stuck him as wonderfully whimsical is the 1909 Lincoln penny. A penny on Mars! Note the specks of Martian dust on the close-up. Click to enlarge.

This is a mission that will cost $2.5 billion. At that price, it is unlikely to be repeated any time soon. What a gamble! During the seven minute descent of the craft onto the Martian surface the spacecraft fired 76 charges, adopted six configurations, and slowed from 6 kilometers per second to -- to a standstill. Presumably, if any one of those 76 charges had misfired, we wouldn't be looking at a penny on Mars.

An almost unbelievable feat of engineering.

The penny, of course, is extraneous to the mission. But you know what? If the goal of the mission had been to show that human knowledge and skill could put a penny on Mars, that would still be worth $2.5 billion (he said, tongue only partly in cheek). I'd rather be looking at Honest Abe in Gale Crater than photos of the ruckus and mayhem that seems to occupy so much human energy and treasure here on Earth.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Adequate step

What shall I call Tim Robinson? A cartographer, yes; the compiler and maker of a miraculous series of maps of Ireland's Aran Islands, limestone Burren, and Connemara. Writer, of marvelous books on the same places. Linguist, a Brit who settled in the West of Ireland and made himself an expert in the Irish language. Historian, of the land as revealed by ancient placenames and his own meticulous research. Naturalist. Walker. Bicyclist. In short, a polymath of whom I stand in awe.

Having read Robinson's books, and pored with endless pleasure over the maps, I can say that the most useful thing I have taken from Robinson is the idea of the "adequate step," a step worthy of the landscape it traverses. I mentioned the "adequate step" in the introduction to my book The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe. That book was my own attempt to give adequate attention to the walk back and forth from home to campus that I did each day for 40 years.

Robinson's adequate step takes into account geology, biology, myths, and history. It also includes the consciousness of the walker. Even all that, says Robinson, is not enough. No step can ever be fully adequate. As I said in The Path, a minute lived attentively can contain a millennium; an adequate step can span the planet.

Today I will be taking my last walk around the parish, along bothareens (little roads) I have walked a hundred times before. I'll be absorbing though the soles of my feet millions of years of geological evolution, millennia of human history. I have done my best to prepare my feet. I have accumulated the available books and maps. I have listened to locals. I have kept my eyes open. I won't pretend to a fraction of Tim Robinson's depth of learning, nor to the fluent adequacy of his step, but still I find the dimensions of the landscape overflowing the mind that tries to contain it.

Tomorrow I'll be in transit back to the path of The Path, so I'll be away for a few days as I make the transition. New shoes. New steps. Through a world that overwhelms even our best efforts at comprehending.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Space Frame

Click, and then again, to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Pixels -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in February 2008.)

An illustration in last Sunday's New York Times evoked the pixelated pics of not so long ago, all jagged little squares, lines that looked more like staircases. This was intentional, of course. One can assume that any illustrator employed by the Times has up-to-date hardware and software graphics. The idea, I suppose, was to look retro. How quickly what we once thought was cutting edge became antique.

I sit here working at my laptop and if I stop to think about what's in front of me I can only shake my head in wonder. I was there in the 1950s and 1960s when the first commercial computers were coming on line. Not so many years later I was dragooned into teaching a two-semester course on how computers work because I was the only one on the faculty who had the knowledge. It was fun. We started with Boolean logic, then went on to the electronic expression of logic functions, flip-flops, edge-triggering, registers, ALUs, and so on. The culmination of the course was to break up into groups of four and build a working computer out of 7400 series integrated circuits -- clock, registers, instruction decoders, ALU, the works. They were simple machines, with an extremely limited instruction set, but they embodied all the elements of timing and control of a real machine. The students could step their way though a program -- front edge, back edge, front edge, back edge -- and watched data move around with their logic probes. I wish I had a photo of one of those machines, spread out on a board about a meter square. When the students finally debugged their creations and got them to work, they were inordinately proud -- and understood how computers work.

Time passed, and computer theory and practice raced far ahead of me. The college developed a department of computer science, and I retired from the front lines with my 7400 chips. No one builds a hands-on machine anymore; it's all theory. The current students know vastly more about computers than I will ever know, but I wonder if any of them have a clue about what's actually happening down there in the guts of the CPU with each beat of the clock.

I sit here thinking about what's going on inside this sweet little MacBook at 1.83 billion times a second, for hours on end, with never a missed beat, never a dropped bit, and it makes my head spin. I belong to the generation of the jagged pixels, dot-matrix printers, and 8-bit CPUs. And I remember with an aching fondness those long afternoons in the electronics lab when we huddled around a bench with a logic probe in our hands, watching the red and green LEDs flicker on and off as our handful of machine-code instructions were executed step -- by step -- by step -- by step.

Friday, September 07, 2012


As a word, it seems to have gone out of fashion, at least in the company I keep. I don't recall it being a part of my children's vocabulary. I wonder if my grandchildren have even heard the word?

Certainly, it was a part of my vocabulary when I was growing up a Roman Catholic in the 1940s and 50s. A big part. We were raised to think about sin all the time. To examine our consciences. To avoid the occasions of sin. To confess our sins.

We were introduced to an elaborate calculus of sin. Mortal. Venial. Our souls were besmirched in fifty shades of grey. One black spot unexpunged could mean an eternity in hell.

By the time I absorbed this stuff, it was already centuries old. Then – bang! –- it seems to have vanished overnight.

Sin as we knew it was something different from immorality, although ostensibly they were the same thing. Sin was more strictly theological. Sin didn't require a victim. Sin didn't even require a deliberate act. A passing thought could be a sin. Eating meat on Friday could be a sin. In Gerard Manley Hopkins' biography I read that the young Jesuit seminarians were given "modesty powder" to render their bath water opaque, lest the sight of their own privates might stir impure thoughts. That's not immorality. That's sin.

We lined up in Church every Friday afternoon to whisper our pathetic lists of transgressions through a dark screen to the priest. What boredom it must have been for him! Sitting there for hours cleansing our dingy little souls with Our Fathers and Hail Marys. How he must have longed for Saturday evening when he might hear something really interesting from an adult.

I trust we raised our own children with a keen sense of morality. And our grandchildren seem to have soundly ethical outlooks on life. At least they don't walk around with that shroud of guilt and impending doom with which the Church worked so hard to wrap our young selves. What was the motive? Control, I think. An age-old, historically-founded, apparatus of control, typical of theocratic institutions everywhere.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Beauty and utility

In a few days I will return to the village of North Easton in Massachusetts. I have lived there for nearly half-a-century, and in all that time the place has physically changed very little. Indeed, it hasn't changed a heck of a lot since it was established as a living community for Ames shovel factory workers in the late-19th century.

Oh, some changes yes. Vastly more traffic using Main Street to get to the new bedroom communities for Boston that have engulfed outlying regions of the town. The mom-and-pop grocery store, drug store and 5&10 have disappeared. The standard two-story workmen's houses of the late-19th century have acquired extensions and upgrades, but the look remains remarkably constant. In compensation for any modest aesthetic deterioration, estates of the Ames family have been opened up for public pleasure. All in all, the village has survived the assaults of modernity wonderfully well.

If North Easton has been a 19th-century fossil suspended in time, Ventry, here in the west of Ireland, where we have been living part time for 40 years, is a tape on fast-forward, 400 years of progress in 40 years. When we arrived, electrification and indoor plumbing were just taking hold. Hay was cut by scythe and raked and piked into cocks. Only the post office had a telephone. Automobiles were few and far between and tourists almost non-existent.

Now, just a few decades later, the old damp homesteads have been abandoned for new, comfy houses with all the mod cons, silage is cut and wrapped by big mechanical combines, every family has a car, or two, or three, and there's a telephone in every pocket. Huge coaches full of tourists roll through on their way to the spectacular scenery of Slea Head. The transformation has been breathtaking.

Which poses for Ventry the dilemma faced by many such places in the world: How to accommodate modernity without losing the things which make a place unique and livable?

The mountain helps. No matter where you are in the parish, Mount Eagle looms above, a presence that cannot be ignored, cannot be modernized. The mountain broods, as it has for millions of years, and in its brooding instills in the people who live on its flanks a certain stillness, a contemplative consideration of the past, a certainty of permanence.

Of course, not even a mountain can resist the transgressions of 21st-century technology. If Mount Eagle had seams of coal, or gold ore, there are machines that could turn it into a slag heap. But Mount Eagle is sandstone. Its saving grace is that it is useless. And because the mountain is useless, the parish is useless. For anything, that is, but beauty.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Irish Augustine

The Irish scholar John Carey was kind enough to read my manuscript for Climbing Brandon: Science and Faith on Ireland's Holy Mountain and make valuable suggestions. Certainly, his studies of early Irish Christian writers were invaluable resources as I was writing. The book would have been less substantial without him.

What I was trying to articulate in Climbing Brandon was a synthesis of empiricism and wonder, what is generally called religious naturalism, an alternative to the natural/supernatural, matter/spirit, body/soul dualisms that have been the source of so much contention between science and religion.

Most importantly, Carey introduced me to the work of a remarkable 7th-century writer known as Augustinus Hibernicus, the "Irish Augustine," who articulated a Christian theology that owed much to the Celtic naturalistic (pagan?) tradition

In his book A Single Ray of the Sun, Carey summarizes Augustinus Hibernicus' approach:
His thought differs most significantly from the attitudes of modern science in its premises, not in its methods. For Augustinus Hibernicus, God and God's actions are everywhere in the world around us: nature is a manifestation of the heavenly mind and will. His science was a sacred science: to explain all of the wonders of faith in the light of reason and nature was for him an act of homage, not defiance, to the Almighty. The spot where Augustinus knelt to worship became a battleground in the Renaissance; and the war between Science and Religion has raged, generally to the detriment of both, down to the present day.
One would be hard pressed to find another Christian writer of any age (or, indeed, of any of the major Western faiths) who so forcefully rejected dualism. For Augustinus, miracles were not contrary to nature; all of nature was miraculous. The world was shot through and through with wonder; every bush and stone was a source of awe.

One need not share Augustinus' professed Christianity, or even his pantheistic inclinations, to appreciate what he was reaching for -– a way of relating to the world that does not separate mind and heart. And this too was a corollary of his unitary theology: a holy ignorance. "We are only able to perceive in part even the bodily things which we see," he wrote. We are not omniscient, and face mystery on every side.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


When you think about it, the common house fly is a wonder of design, sleek, compact, aerodynamic, perfectly adapted for its purpose, which is to get into the house and track its dirty feet all over the crockery. And yet, I have no compunctions about doing them in. SWAT!

But what about the creature above, the crane fly? They too seem to have an overwhelming desire to get into the house, although for what purpose I have yet to discern. Same order of insects as the house fly, the Diptera. But swat one? Never!

If my wife insists on disposal, murder's not an option. I get a drinking glass and a piece of paper and walk them out the door.

Why the squeamishness? I set traps for mice. I put out poison for the rats. I mop up ants in their teeming hundreds with a wet rag. But no way I could kill a crane fly.

I think it has to do with their sheer improbability. The utter absurdity of those threadlike legs, with their knee warmers. That goofy little pair of wings -- like paddling a rowboat with a pair of butter knives. The second pair of wings having reverted to a pair of useless stumps when they would seem to be needed more than ever to get the whole contraption airborne.

Clearly, the Intelligent Designer was having a bit of fun, and God knows the world can use a little whimsy. Who am I to say, "Get serious."

Monday, September 03, 2012


I've put my garden to sleep. Pulled out the last hopeless excuses for edible plants. Hoed up the weeds. Spread what was left of the compost. Covered the plot with weed-repressing black cloth. And tossed in the towel.

And trowel.

Not a bean to be harvested. Not a leaf of lettuce. Not a shred of spinach. The gods of gardens looked down on my patch of stunted seedlings and decided, "Why bother?"

And who would blame them?

What a summer! If I may be so delusional as to call it summer. I can count the sunshiny days on one hand. My seeds germinated, stuck a doubtful tendril into the cool, damp air and gave up the ghost. I understand; there have been days when I didn't want to get out of bed myself.

Global warming? Who knows? The prevailing wind is from the west, and if the sea is warmer and the air above is warmer, there's going to be more moisture coming our way. Cloud and rain. Fifty shades of grey.

But I need growing things. Need to witness the transformation from seed to plant. "How could something as yellow as a buttercup come up out of brown soil?" asks John Moriarty. "Where did the color and the perfection come from? And what else was down there?"

These sound like trite questions, questions a child might ask. But in fact they are huge questions, even in this day of DNA and molecular biology. They are the largest questions we can ask. The force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives my green age.

What is the force?

That's all I asked of my garden. How does a red tomato come up out of brown soil? I can get my beans and tomatoes at the grocery store, but those cellophane-wrapped packages are mute philosophers. If I want an answer, I have to participate in the question –- turning the soil, planting the seeds, pulling weeds, fighting slugs and rabbits.

A garden is an Academy . A school for philosophers. Brown knees and dirt under the fingernails are diplomas of sorts, certifications that one has asked the big question.

Sunday, September 02, 2012


Click, and then again, to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Getting there -- a Saturday reprise

This post originally appeared in July 2010.

Many people keep books or magazines by their toilet, to bide the time while they are sitting on the can. I keep a daddy-long-legs. Or a mommy-long-legs.

A common "cellar" spider, Pholcus phalangioides. They love to winter here in my studio, and when I arrive I generally sweep dozens out with a broom. But I keep a few -- one here under the shelf over my desk, and one in the loo. They are endlessly interesting to watch, although they don't do much but sit there in their almost invisible webs and hope something falls on their plate. Whatever mating they do is done with some discretion -- they like to do it in the dark -- and I suppose my broom makes rather a dint in available partners. But when the tiny baby spiders are born it's all rather exciting, and I feel the proud parent.

Touch the web with a pencil point and they do a dervish dance, some reflex ingrained in deep time, possibly to further entangle a prey in the web, or to make the spider invisible, or to scare away a predator. I don't scare, but I like to see them dance. Imagine that tiny brain controlling those sprawling legs with the skateboarder knee pads.

Here's a mystery. In these climes, at least, Pholcus phalangioides is never found outdoors, or so I'm reliably told by a guidebook. How then do they colonize new barns, cellars, and homes? When we built our cottage it was a quarter-mile from other buildings of any sort, and yet it soon had its population of Pholcus phalangioides. Did they "balloon" here? Some spiders let out a thread that catches the wind and if the thread is long enough the spider can let go of its perch and sail away. It would seem a rather catch-as-catch-can way of finding new indoor spaces to inhabit, but here is this mommy-long-legs, watching me on the can as I watch her. If a reader knows of an answer to this mystery, I'd like to hear it. Surely some arachnidologist has made it her life's work to illuminate Pholcus phalangioides migration. The Book of Job had it long ago: "Ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee."